Fencing, Kendo, and Yoga: The Art and Science of Breathing
© 2014 Jonathan Riddle, all rights reserved.
I snapped at my students, yelling, “en garde!” They jumped to
attention with their foils in hand, awaiting my next instruction.
I took a long, deep breath and started thinking about what I wanted
them to do next.
For a beginner fencer, learning footwork is essential, but with my
twenty or so years of fencing experience, it has taught me that,
breathing is vital. The lesson was taught to me by Mark Masters, who
was an instructor at the Fencing Academy of Michigan in Southfield,
Michigan back in the late 80’s. The importance of breathing could not
have been more stressed. Mark explained it was important not to hold
your breath, but to breathe naturally. As part of his teaching style,
he enjoyed mixing our warm-ups with aerobics and yoga before we began
our footwork practice.
The same concepts apply to the sport of kendo, or Japanese fencing.
At the beginning of a kendo practice, everyone is lined up
according to their rank, and kneeling before the sensei. We take
a moment to meditate and to breathe. It is essential to learn how
to relinquish oneself, become an empty vessel, and find your beginner's
mind. Learning to breathe helps the mind relax, and a good
kendoka (practitioner of kendo) goes into mushin or no mind or
surrender of the ego. You and your shinai (bamboo practice sword)
become one, or one mind.
My renewed interest in breathing came to my
attention while attending a beginning yoga class at Oakland Community
College, my yoga instructor asked our class to work on an assignment
which included making observations of each other’s breathing.
My observations included observing my three month
old daughter, my dog, and my goldfish. My daughter started her
breathing by inhaling into her chest, expanding it and rolling the air
into her abdomen, this was done while she was sleeping. Similarly, I
observed my dog taking note that she was breathing into her abdomen. I
did this by placing my hand on her belly to feel the movement of her
breaths. This is what I would call natural breathing. And just for fun,
I observed my goldfish, watching it breath through its gills.
As a part of normal breathing, the lungs handle
delivering oxygen and removing carbon dioxide from the blood, which in
turn affects the acid-base balance of the blood. Oxygen goes in and
carbon dioxide goes out, which maintains a neutral pH. If your
blood becomes either too acidic or too basic, it could lead to illness
and eventually death.
While attending a conference on urban violence, one
of the speakers, Dick Gregory, a famous civil rights activist and
standup comedian told the audience jokingly that he felt that, “anger
causes more kidney failure than drinking does.” With what he
said, there is some truth, anger can affect your breathing, which could
be taxing on the kidneys and over a period of time, this could
gradually damage the kidneys, which could cause some loss in function.
Breathing affects the health of the kidneys indirectly. There is a
physiological link between breathing and the kidneys because of the
acid-base balance. If the lungs are compromised or overtaxed, then the
kidneys should handle the function of maintaining the acid-base
The yoga professor asked, what is the proper way to breathe? The
proper way to breathe includes uses your diaphragm and your
belly. The lessons learned about breathing are that, it should be
unconscious, relaxed, and each breath should go into the abdomen.
This opens up your lungs maximally. One technique I learned while in
the Army, was that after running you should put your hands on your head
which increases the size of your chest.
My yoga instructor asked the students to answer this
question, am I good breather? I have learned several different
methods of breathing. In stressful situations you have to learn how to
breathe correctly. A few of my secret techniques to remaining calm and
relaxed especially during a very intense emotional situation include:
exercising (my off practice exercise has always been walking),
meditating, taking deep breaths and learning to let things go, and
realizing it is my decision to choose what attitude to have towards
that stressful situation.
Breathing has become a part of my warm-up ritual before fencing. I
would meditate for a few minutes prior to practice or before a
tournament, taking long deep breathes and clearing my mind - reducing
any anxiety I might have about a fencing match.
The best example I remembered, was the last time I sparred with
Izaki-san, one of the Eastern Michigan University Kendo Club’s
instructors, just before he went back to Japan. It felt great that
I had this last opportunity to spar with him. It was on the only time I
actually won a bout against him. I remember, standing very still,
waiting for him to attack, clearing my mind, becoming one mind with my
shinai, and only breathing. As he attacked, I stepped out of the
way, and made a cut at his men. It was perfect; he missed and I
struck him cleanly on the head.